What a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time, urban Americans had ample access to high-speed Internet, but, for the most part, rural Americans were left out of the loop.

Now urban and rural Americans may have switched positions, at least in parts of the Midwest.

“We have a burr under our saddle in Iowa because of the perception that rural residents are on the slow side of the digital divide,” says Judi Langholz, marketing manager of netINS (www.netins.net). The Internet service provider is a subsidiary of Iowa Network Services, a consortium of 150 Iowa telephone companies, most of which offer high-speed Internet access in rural areas. “The percentage of rural customers in Iowa who can get high-speed Internet access actually is higher than in some metropolitan areas in the state,” Langholz says.

Nationwide, about 75% of the U.S. population now has access to high-speed Internet service, which also is called broadband. In rural Iowa, the percentage of the population with Internet access probably is higher.

Iowa is the home of Prairie iNet (www.prairieinet.net), which began offering high-speed access in September 2000 through a network of radio towers, many affixed to the top of grain elevators. Today, Prairie iNet, which lays claim to being the largest fixed wireless Internet provider in the U.S., serves residents in and around 175 communities in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and Nebraska.

Even before that, about 100 Iowa Network Services member companies began offering high-speed access through a combination of digital subscriber lines (DSL) and fixed wireless technologies similar to those used by Prairie iNet.

Not to be left behind the broadband bandwagon, 10 Iowa rural electric cooperatives have begun offering satellite-based high-speed Internet access through a program initiated by the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC). The co-op's members include more than 1,000 rural utilities and affiliates in 46 states. The electric co-ops joined numerous other providers, including local Radio Shack stores, offering satellite services through Starband or DirecWay, the two satellite television and Internet providers serving the U.S.

Making connections

Although the proliferation of high-speed providers may not have been as dramatic across the rest of the nation as in Iowa, most rural residents have at least one option for high-speed Internet access and, in many cases, two.

Nationwide, most of the development of high-speed Internet access in rural areas over the past year has been by fixed wireless providers eager to stake out existing tower locations before competitors arrive. Providers range from small, local companies, such as Netcare Internet Services, Tuscola, IL, which serves four communities in northern Illinois, to companies such as United Farmers Cooperative, Lafayette, MN (www.ufcmn.com/rts.shtml), which offers high-speed Internet services in a three-county area and is part of a growing fixed wireless network (www.xtratyme.com) serving much of south central and southwestern Minnesota.

Satellite service providers reselling DirecWay and Starband connectivity also have been aggressive. In addition to DirecWay (www.direcway.com) and Starband (www.dishnetwork.com) themselves, resellers include NRTC member co-ops (www.nrtc.org) and many others. AgriStar Global Networks, Chicago, IL (www.agristar.com) recently announced it will be offering DirecWay services as part of its goal of building a high-speed satellite network designed to “bridge the large connectivity gap” between leading farm operations and their primary trade partners.

High-speed options

Internet access generally is considered to be high speed if it operates above the maximum speed possible with a dial-up telephone connection, or 56 kilobits per second (kbps). In many rural areas, effective maximum dial-up speeds are in the 28 to 40 kbps range.

High-speed Internet connections generally operate in a range of 128 kbps to 1.5 megabits (1,000 kilobits) per second (mbps), depending on the technology and the service option. In addition to offering higher speed, these services are always connected, so you don't have to establish a connection each time you want to use the Internet or check your e-mail. And you don't have to tie up the telephone line.

Here's what you can expect from the major high-speed Internet options available in rural America.

Fixed wireless

Fixed wireless uses 2.4-gigahertz radio signals to connect subscribers within a four- to six-mile radius of a central antenna. Download speeds range from 128 kbps to 1.5 mbps, depending on the provider and the level of service you pay for. Prices generally range from $40 to $50/month and often include an antenna and other needed equipment, plus several e-mail addresses. Installation costs typically are $100 to $200. To qualify for this service, there must be an unobstructed view between the central antenna and your antenna location.

Satellite

Satellite services are available to virtually anyone in the U.S. with a clear view of the southern sky. Download speeds average 200 to 300 kbps. The typical monthly cost is about $70. A satellite dish and installation typically cost $700 to $750. Both DirecWay and Starband also provide satellite television services, which can be purchased in a bundle with Internet access and use the same satellite dish. Monthly service costs are expected to fall in the future if a proposed merger between EchoStar Communications, the parent company of Starband, and Hughes Network Services, parent of DirecWay, is approved by federal regulators, says Marc Lumpkin of EchoStar.

DSL

A digital subscriber line uses the same telephone line that carries telephone service to provide high-speed access. DSL has primarily been an urban phenomenon because the technology works within about three miles of a telephone company switching center or central office. New DSL technology could extend that range to six miles in the future. Some innovative rural telephone companies in Iowa and elsewhere have extended DSL service by installing hub-and-spoke systems that effectively extend the DSL coverage area. Others have combined DSL and fixed wireless technologies to provide coverage to 90% or more of their service areas.

DSL download speeds typically are in the 400 kbps to 1.5 mbps range, depending on the service option you choose. Monthly costs are in the $35 to $50 range. Equipment typically costs $150 to $225.

Cable

Cable-based high-speed Internet service is rare in rural America because of the high per-customer cost of installing cable in areas with low population densities. Where available, speeds of 2 mbps are possible, though speeds typically are slower during high-use times. If you already have cable television, or a cable passes near your farm, cable-based high-speed Internet may be an option.

Future of broadband

Nationwide, an estimated 5 to 8% of customers with access to high-speed Internet actually sign up for it. The same “take rate” probably applies in rural areas, says Arlan Quandahl, manager of Northeast Iowa Telephone Co., Monona, IA (www.neitel.com), which has built a DSL/fixed wireless network to serve its rural customers.

Quandahl expects high-speed Internet to overtake dial-up connections in five to 10 years, at the latest.

“I believe Internet broadband will become a commodity rather than a luxury in a few years,” he says. “It won't be farmers who push the growth for broadband services. It will be the farm kids.